Defining Political Sentiment: Mainstream or My Stream?

The 2016 presidential primary season has shattered every expectation about the established process. From the retiree-aged front-runners to no political experience required, SNL skits have been unnecessary as the real events are so entertaining.

I am a party-unaffiliated independent, with limited interest in politics. Yes, I vote in most elections and worry about the macro issues. But I’m simply not passionate enough about the process or those who bravely dedicate themselves to public office to connect with either party.

Primary season has pushed forward and most of us have been surprised at Donald Trump’s persistent lead, given his freewheeling talking points. However, his tell-it-like-it-is, unfiltered approach seems to be resonating. And the Bern, in spite of his costly plans, has modest momentum. What is it about these upstart candidates that the public has found so appealing?

That’s exactly what establishment politicians are wondering. And these days, they’re getting nervous about potential outcomes. How can an outsider represent the conservative Republicans? How dare millennials, including young women, challenge Hillary’s chances in favor of a Democratic socialist?

Political pundits describe these rogue candidates as going against the “mainstream” particularly on the Republican side. But are they really challenging the mainstream, or just the traditional politicians themselves, who may be concerned about their own futures?

To test this theory, I reviewed mainstream’s definition against current events. A quick Google search listed the following terms as “mainstream.”

  1. Normal: I can’t dispute this one. What we’ve come to expect as normal or “business as usual” is certainly being challenged. But then again, isn’t it the voters – or the politicians’ constituents – who are raising their voices to challenge?
  2. Conventional: Neither Trump or Sanders is particularly conventional but they have amassed a substantial following, so perhaps they’re simply redefining the term.
  3. Majority: Here, I’m not so sure, as the fact that both Trump and Sanders are winning means some majorities favors their ideas and calls for change.
  4. Middle-of-the-road: I don’t believe that either party can claim to represent the middle-of-the-road. The natural tension between the blue and red is what enables achieving decisions and governing policies that work for most of us.

So I’m not convinced that either Trump or Sanders is really challenging the mainstream. Perhaps the mainstream is challenging itself and these candidates are helping chart that new course. Regardless, Trump and Sanders have engaged more interest during the presidential elections early stages than ever before, which is certainly positive – and not a particularly mainstream expectation! Remember to vote in your primary – and in November – and until then, enjoy the show.


SXSW 30: Older than many attendees, but still going strong

In my role as a marketing and communications strategist, I find it both inspiring and informative to immerse myself in opportunities to see what’s trending in my field. Like you, that often takes the form of reading blogs, tweets and articles, or catching up with industry friends. But there is nothing quite like attending a relevant conference to really capture that immersive experience.

Five years ago I began attending SXSW’s Interactive Conference – the geekier first phase of the famous music and film festival hosted in “Keep Austin Weird” Texas.  During those years, I’ve seen the conference evolve from a content and attendee perspective. My first year, the alternatives to the marketing and branding track were primarily technical sessions and participant demographics skewed young. Five years later, there are content tracks for gaming and VR/AR, sports, nonprofits, health and medtech, work & career management and more. Most of the panelists are older (mid-30s through 60s) and there are plenty of gray-haired participants. As well, corporate sponsorships have become substantial, featuring “recharge” lounges around the Austin Convention Center. However, that helps keep the registration fees affordable for the thousands who attend.

Each year,  some buzzworthy items surface during the conference (last year was Meerkat, this year was virtual reality, with VR experiences available at some sponsored lounges). However, I always have fun noting the smaller things that set the tone for the event. So here’s my list of #SXSW2016  trends:

  1. Tom’s flats and black sneakers were women’s shoes of choice (and comfort!).
  2. Man buns are here to stay.
  3. The hipster fedora is officially retired.
  4. Less live tweeting, however, it was cumbersome to figure out the session hashtags, as opposed to prior years when it was printed in the program.
  5. Highly engaged attendees, with those taking notes often using old-fashioned pens and paper.
  6. Fewer lines to get into sessions. Very long lines to get into parties and some of the corporate lounges.
  7. Lots of hotels downtown Austin, which is a huge improvement and convenience.
  8. Very fast runners along the riverside pathways.
  9. The bats were still on winter vacation (or avoiding the evening show on the Congress Street bridge).
  10. Lyft ruled. As the official ride-sharing partner supplemented by $5 and $10 on-site credits, they were the ride of choice (and did a great job, by the way!).

If you’ve ever considered attending, I highly recommend it. Great content, top-notch speakers, a vibrant setting – and the chance to spot trends as they happen!


Which is More Super: the Ads or the Bowl?

On Sunday, February 7, nearly 200 million people are expected to watch the Super Bowl, staggering numbers by any measure. This year’s 50th anniversary game features a retiring Hall of Famer vs. a dabbing MVP; what more could fans ask for? Well, $5 million ads, of course!

This year, advertisers will spend $166,666 per second to promote their brand to an audience that will immediately tweet, post or chat about their reaction. For well-established and sizable brands, getting this air time can be a no-brainer. But what’s amazing are the smaller brands that spend the bulk of their annual ad budget on such a fleeting opportunity. What if your time slot is right before Coldplay? Won’t most viewers be grabbing snacks so they can watch the halftime show? But advertise, they will.

So why are the Super Bowl and its high-profile ad campaigns such a phenomena?

  1. History: Sports competitions have long been a primary form of entertainment dating back to ancient times. Think Greek games and amphitheaters. They play; we watch!
  2. Brand equity: The NFL is among the most successful brands today; period. The championship game is a must-see event due to the incredible loyalty and size of its fan base.
  3. You score and you win: Whether the game or the ads, getting points on the board means you’re assured replays and extended interest.
  4. Level playing field: Those who may know less about football can easily engage in conversations about the ads; after all, what’s so complicated about a 30-second video?
  5. Shared experience: And the bottom line, come Monday morning, who wants to be the only person in the universe who missed the big game and can’t vote on the best and worst ads?

Whether its touchdowns or tacos that will turn your attention to the screen, this Super event is truly the epitome of a branded experience. Let the games – and the marketing – begin!


When Being Served “Fast” Ain’t Good Enough

Face it; convenience is the go-to attribute for our day-to-day activities. It likely influences where you work, shop or live, as convenience usually translates to more downtime. To classify a brand or product as convenient, we rely on crisp adjectives so it’s clear what we’re getting. Think, “drive-through”, “walking-distance” or “we deliver” and time is suddenly on your side. I was recently thinking about how these adjectives even project the quality of the experience, such as “takeout” versus “fast food.” Which would you rather have for dinner?

Given how busy life has become, I rarely cook during the week. Sure, tossing a salad or reheating leftovers takes a little effort, but even those simple preparations compete fiercely against the instant pleasure of dinners to go. Whether Whole Foods’ entrees or the local Thai restaurant, those meals only require making a selection by dropping in, calling – or increasingly, a few clicks on their apps – all of which are certainly quick or “fast.” But I would never describe these culinary experiences as “fast food.” That efficiency label is strictly describes burger joints and pizza parlors, and implicitly suggests less healthy/higher calorie options. How did those distinct labels evolve and why is “fast” not as well regarded in this instance, even though it truly does describe the customer experience?

Some possibilities:

  1. Fast food was coined as a term in the 1950s, an era when people didn’t worry about their health as much. And during that time, the primary option was a burger joint – think White Castle, the original fast-food restaurant. So labeling those experiences as “fast” was initiated long ago.
  2. Convenience was less important when there were fewer two-career households or 24/7 work schedules. So it was really a fun dining-out experience that just happened quickly.
  3. The “healthier” fast-casual restaurants such as Panera have emerged more recently, in response to customer demand for such menus.
  4. Additionally, the abundant availability of prepared meals at groceries and specialty markets has fueled this “takeout” trend. Admit it: we love having this permission to skip true home cooking!
  5. Consequently today, fast can suggest lower quality, which means to select that option, you expect other benefits besides getting served quickly, such as cheaper pricing.

So the next time you frown when you hear the term “fast-food” just remember of all that extra time you gained when you elected to pick up sushi to go or waited two minutes for your caramel macchiatto!


When Your Family is Named Mike – and Mike

For eight years, my commute to work involved an hour’s drive. When I first relocated to working in the suburbs, I realized I had to upgrade my 12-year old car for a new, more reliable model. And along with the car, I decided to subscribe to satellite radio. After all, I needed entertainment for all that alone time. Being a sports fan, I happily settled into commuting to the office accompanied by Mike & Mike on ESPN radio.

For the uninitiated, the Mikes are a team of opposites – Mike Greenberg is a sports journalist while Mike Golic enjoyed an eight-year career in the NFL. Together, they chatter as a self-proclaimed nerd and a jock, with an on-air chemistry that’s both entertaining and informative. Whether dishing on the prior day’s professional sports highlights or offering insights to help settle March Madness brackets or fantasy football line-ups, I became a loyal listener.

What’s interesting was how easily I made an emotional connection with two guys I never met. Maybe it was the subject matter – yes, spectator sports are a very emotional pastime! Or perhaps it was the genuine easy rhythm that comes after 15 years of working together. No matter how it happened, they made it feel like I was spending time with old friends. I even got to know their families a bit!  And frankly, it got to the point that I actually found I missed one or both Mikes when travel or vacation took them away from the show.

Last spring, however, I had to give them up because my job moved back into the city and I reclaimed train commuting. I occasionally listened to a replay of the show but it’s just not the same as live. Recently, I was driving to work in another one office and was excited to tune in to the Mikes. It had been a while and the football season was in full swing so I was ready for some good insights. But just like any good family, a surprise was in store – today’s scoring highlight was Mike Golic’s standout performance in a donut eating contest! With a laugh-out-loud moment in the car, it felt like we’d only been together yesterday as I listened to Greenie proudly congratulate his co-host on his big win.

Why was this such a great example of the “Mike & Mike” brand?

  1. Authenticity – these guys are who they are. Golic is a self-deprecating, extrovert, who understands that being a radio host requires entertaining. And Greenie is student of journalism, who often talks about his humble start, and helps steer their focus.
  2. Emotional connections – whether the NFL Superbowl or the station’s donut challenge, these guys know sports and help listeners appreciate athletics through their lively dialogues. Yet their friendly demeanor and down-to-earth style is classic water-cooler office chatter vs. know-it-all smartypants.
  3. Consistency – you know what to expect in terms of overall content and style. And if you like the experience, you want to come back for more!

I congratulate these guys for providing a thoroughly entertaining show that kept my dial positioned on ESPN for eight enjoyable years. I don’t miss putting all those miles on my car, but it’s comforting to know that whenever I have the occasion to drive to work, my Mikes will be waiting to keep me company!



There’s nothing like getting scolded on Facebook by your mother. And all because of a baseball team she doesn’t root for. It’s October – or World Series time – this year featuring the NY Mets and once again, the Kansas City Royals. After the Mets’ clinched their spot, she posted a congratulatory message on Facebook, closing with their battle cry “Let’s Go Mets!” Trust me, she was being a good sport as she’s longtime Yankees fanatic. But her good-sport sentiment made me think about how national championships stretch our sports brand loyalties.

The professional sports leagues have done a tremendous job creating must-watch events of their annual winner-takes-all final showdowns. Whether baseball, football, basketball or hockey, once the regular season winds up, fans whose teams are out of it have two choices – stop paying attention or pick someone else to cheer. The latter can follow league loyalties, so baseball fans may favor fellow American or National league contenders, or maybe geographic affinities, such as my mother’s Mets rally cry. Bottom line is this – fans love the overarching sports brand and once a year, willingly put aside emotional ties just to stay in the game experience. Is there any other brand that can make that claim?

So back to my Facebook scolding. I replied to my mother’s post with a passing comment about how those of us in Red Sox Nation had moved on to the NFL (yes, our beloved Pats are unbeaten!) and she called me out for being a bad sport. And you know what? She’s right.

Congratulations to all of you (non-Yankee) New York baseball fans. I am actually watching the World Series game and wish you the best. Lets go Mets!


Learn from the Best: Lunch with Martha Stewart

I’m at a conference and today’s lunchtime speaker was branding maven Martha Stewart. In my view, she is a charter member of the brand positioning hall of fame. Her focus and passion around home and entertainment have yielded an iconic brand carefully crafted by Martha Stewart, the person.

So what did Martha have to say?

  1. Brand positioning: “We believe every home is a canvas.” This simple statement implies adventure and possibility, and also suggests that with Martha as your art teacher, your creation will be tasteful and stylish.
  2. Brand values: this ambitious list features the company’s efforts to be “inspiring, informative, innovative, distinctive, timeless, educational, surprising, celebratory and beautiful.” They aim to deliver on these promises through artful content, primarily beautiful photography, as found in Martha Stewart “Living” magazine, her blog and other content marketing tools.
  3. Martha Stewart recognizes they have strong competition (think Bon Appetit magazine and other lifestyle publications) and that the internet has reinvented consumer expectations.
  4. Effective management is a major challenge. Given her many ideas and opportunities, having the leadership bandwidth to nurture the longstanding core business while developing aspirations is important to succeeding.

No startling revelations; simply an inside look at a well-defined brand strategy. I’m not sure I’d thought of my home as a canvas, but it’s an uplifting term – and maybe means some redecorating is in order!


Why the NFL scores big

Scandals aside, you can’t help but admire the National Football League. Supported by passionate fans, they dominate their TV time slots, prompt highly engaged social media activity and generate over $1 billion in merchandise sales. With a brand value exceeding $10 billion, dramatic, high-quality competition is the main event. However, the NFL has also nurtured its brand magnificently with strict usage guidelines and clever brand extensions. They have also enabled an addictive manner to expand interest beyond “your team” through fantasy football. So instead of planning your entire week around watching one game, you now have an excuse to spend Sundays watching football – and probably Monday and Thursday nights, too. According to NBC Sports Pro Football Talk, 34 of America’s 35-most watched fall 2013 TV shows were football games. If you’re in a fantasy league, you get it. And if you’re not, you probably have too much free time on your hands.

Fantasy football traces its roots to eight Oakland Raiders fans in 1963, but expanded very slowly due to the manual effort required to track the scoring. Fast-forward to the late 90s when the CBS launched a free fantasy website and then to 2010, when the NFL itself released an official fantasy site. Today roughly 33 million people spend hours refreshing their statistical capabilities by carefully managing a fantasy football team through the season. Trades, waiver claims, contemplating who to start or bench, and of course bragging when you’re winning – and quietly going off the grid when you’re losing – are all fantasy fan habits.

My team did well last year, and I will admit that I watched a lot more football, contributing to the NFL brand’s success. The 2015 season is young but I’ve already spent money on an official NFL jersey (Gronk, of course!), have tuned in to hours of game time and am fretting about my fantasy team. If you’re in a league, I wish you a winning season and let’s compare notes in February! (P.S. if you want more statistics, check out FiveThirtyEight’s “Complete History of the NFL” post.)


Which came first: Maine or Lobster Rolls?

From time to time, two brand categories become so commonly associated that it’s hard to separate them. Think movies and popcorn, country music and cowboy hats, beer and pretzels. While you can certainly enjoy one without the other, together, they’re just better.

A fundamental branding tenet is making emotional connections with your target audience, and I think that’s what these paired experiences have perfected. This came to mind recently, during my visits to Maine this summer – the state where the license plates read “vacationland.” You can’t help but relax, whether you’re visiting the rocky shoreline, sparkling lakes, craggy Acadia National Park or enjoying the art and food scene in Portland. Speaking of food, when we think of Maine inevitably a lobster roll comes to mind. That’s part two of the paired branding experience!

Interestingly, there are many variations of lobster roll recipes, which contradicts branding’s consistency principle. What remains the same, however, is the authenticity of eating a fresh catch from local waters, preferably while seated dockside. And maybe having many recipes encourages continually sampling this simple dish, which means seeing more of Maine. Sounds like everybody wins!

Right now, the Maine Maritime Museum is hosting a history of lobstering exhibit, with a video featuring a Portland-based chef showcasing his lobster roll recipe. While his lovely dish is a little fussy for me, it is a fitting sea-to-table ending for this exhibit celebrating both vacationland and the lobster.

So branding isn’t always about a uniquely differentiated company or product. Sometimes great branding is about a memorable pairing, with room for personal interpretations. I hope you get to enjoy a lobster roll sometime soon – and better yet, on the Maine coast.

 A consistently top-ten rated lobster roll from Five Islands Lobster, Georgetown, ME.